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This Is My Home: Nursing Past Toddlerhood

by Wendy Wisner, IBCLC

Most of us are comfortable with the idea of nursing an infant.  Certainly everyone agrees that breastmilk is the superior infant food.  And most people understand that an infant suckling at a mother’s breast is natural (though far too many people are uncomfortable with actually seeing a mother breastfeed!).

There is a lovely, ever-growing subset of people who are comfortable with toddlers nursing.  Even in the eight years since my first child was born, nursing a toddler has become more and more accepted.  We know that toddlers need “milk” and that breastmilk so neatly fills this need (after all, it was the original “milk” for humans before they drank milk from other species).

It’s the moms who nurse children who are most stigmatized.  I haven’t even read all the comments on this article that is going around, but I’ve read enough to recognize the extreme reactions people have when they see a nursing six-year-old.

And you may be one of those people.  Most people are.  But hold on just a second.  I’m not here to criticize you, or even to try to convince you of anything.

I want you to know that I get it.  I get the idea that a child—a lanky, chatty, independent child, who is on the course to be a big child—seems too old be breastfeeding.

I once thought that too.  I thought that because it was all I’d ever known.  It was what I’d been told all my life.

It might mean nothing to you, but did you know that all of this—every notion you’ve ever had about bigger children nursing—is specific to the time we live in, and is completely culturally defined?  Did you know that for most of human history, and in many parts of the world still, nursing through early childhood is normal?  Did you know we are the anomaly?

Did you know that it is a relatively new thing—and certainly a culturally specific thing—to sexualize breasts to the extent that we do?  To sexualize them to the point where any child who can walk or talk is “too old” to be still be nursing because (let’s just come out and say it) there might be something sexual brewing between a mother and her child at that age.

There is nothing sexual about a mother nursing a 4, 5, 6, or 7 year old child.  Truly.  It’s not a sexual act.  It’s an act of nurture.  And although breastmilk is not a main source of nutrition for these children, breastmilk contains antibodies and antiviral agents for the entire time a child nurses.  We all know that children’s immune systems aren’t as strong as adults’—maybe that’s part of the reason children so often have the need to nurse past infancy and toddlerhood.

According to the anthropologist Kathy Dettwyler, most children wean on their own sometime between the age of 2.5 and 7 years old.  These numbers are true to what I’ve observed working with breastfeeding mothers for the past five years.  There is a lot of variation here because all kids are different, and reach developmental milestones at different ages.

You can read this article by Dettwyler if you wish, which describes the cultural and biological imperatives behind natural weaning.  You may find it illuminating.

You may also think it’s irrelevant—that this is a modern world, and we shouldn’t be beholden to ancient history, and primate biology.

OK. I understand where you’re coming from. But here’s the thing.  There are many kids out there nursing—not just the ones in this newest article, or the kid who was on the cover of Time Magazine a few years ago.  They might even live down the street from you.  They go to school (no, they don’t nurse at school!), soccer practice, art class, etc.

They are normal kids.  And they grow up to be successful, flawed, happy, unhappy, thriving, imperfect, awesome adults.  Their moms are normal too.  They love their kids, they yell sometimes, they apologize, they are tired, trying to figure it out each day.

Here’s how nursing a child works.  At the end of the day, when you might cozy up with your young child in bed and snuggle—when your child might reach for a thumb to suckle, or the frayed end of a blanket to cuddle with or suck on—these children might nurse a bit.  Usually not much, once they are four years old or so.  Most older children nurse briefly, once or twice a day.  They will often go days or weeks or months without nursing.  That’s how weaning of older children usually happens.

Why do they still nurse?  It’s biology, baby.  The sucking reflex that we all know babies have doesn’t go away in babyhood or toddlerhood.  Like every developmental milestone, it is reached at different times for different kids, but usually diminishes sometime after about 3 years old, and is almost always gone by 6 or 7 years old.

And though some older children might meet their sucking needs by sucking thumbs or binkies or blankets, nursing was the way nature designed for children to meet these needs (without wrecking the alignment of their teeth, by the way).

I’ll tell you a story.  My story.  I didn’t plan on nursing my son for as long as he did.  He was a high-needs baby who always sighed a deep sigh of relief when he latched on and nursed.  Even as a young baby he taught me that milk was only a fraction of the reason he nursed.  When he was a bouncy, talkative, volatile, emotional toddler, nursing centered him, calmed him, slowed down his body and his breathing.  It brought him back to my arms, when he needed a break from constantly jumping and talking (the kid never stopped talking!).

The suckling itself released calming hormones in both of us (biology is cool like that, offering moms and their children lots of incentives to nurse).  His instinct to nurse, and my instinct to nurse him, continued for several years.  It tapered off just as his body grew, and his jaw-line lengthened, and his big teeth pushed themselves into place behind the milk teeth (there’s a reason they call them milk teeth).

Soon the three-year-old who needed to nurse every few hours became the four-year-old who needed to nurse just at bedtime and in the morning.  Then just at bedtime.  Then just some days at bedtime.  Then his body needed to do different things.  He needed to talk himself to sleep.  He needed to rest his head against my chest rather than nurse.  He needed to hold my hand.  He needed to roll into his own bed without me.

All of these changes took time.  His time.  Our time.

He was my child.  I was his mom.  If you had told me when he was born that I would be nursing him that long, I would have laughed.  But we grew into it together, and out of it too.

You can’t really know until you’ve done it, or you’ve seen it.  But it’s normal.  The media has sensationalized it, and sexualized it.  But it is none of those things.  It’s an exchange of love between a mother and child.  That’s all.

My two-year-old summed it up perfectly the other day.  He lifted my shirt, looked inside, and said, “This is my home.”  And I know it will continue to be his home for some time still.

You don’t have to nurse your child for as long I did, or as long as other mothers do.  I know you find ways to meet your child’s need for security, for touch, and for love.  I am not better than you, and you are not better than me.  But I ask you to think outside the box when it comes to mothers nursing their children past a certain age, past the age you feel comfortable with.

And if you are nursing a child past the toddler years, know that you are not alone, there are many of us out there, going with our instincts, and letting our children lead the way.

Wendy Winser breastfeeding; The Badass Breastfeeder

Nursing my son.  He was about 3 at the time.  By 4, he wasn’t really nursing much during the day, so I don’t have any pictures of him nursing then!

unnamedWendy Wisner is a mom, writer, and lactation consultant (IBCLC) in private practice.  Her poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in such publications as Prairie Schooner,Brain, Child Magazine, Literary Mama, Mamalode, The Spoon River Review, Natural Child Magazine, Lilith, The Badass Breastfeeder, The Bellevue Literary Review, Scary Mommy, Natural Bridge, and Verse Daily.  She blogs at www.nursememama.com.  Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Comments

  1. Bravo! As a tandem nursing mama of a 6 month old and 28 month old, I applaud you for so candidly and beautifully describing what it’s like to nurse a child past infancy. It makes me sad that our society is so selfish and ignorant when it comes to breasts and their true purpose…to nourish AND comfort our children. We need a paradigm shift! To all the mothers still nursing older children, keep it up! Listen to your children and keep respecting them and nature. Wendy, your writing is just wonderful. Thank you!

  2. Thank you so much for this article!!! Sometimes it is hard to nurse a toddler with the way society views breastfeeding, I have support thank God but there are still some looks and comments. It isn’t gross or sexual or anything else like that its beautiful and natural!!! I can fix a owie or calm a tantrum or squash a fear just by letting my daughter nurse tell me that’s not worth it!!! Thank you again for this article!

  3. Thank you so much for this article. I am “still” nursing a 4.5 year old boy at bedtime and that’s how he falls asleep most nights. And sometimes he has a little drink during the night (we co-sleep). I love still nursing him, but only a handful of people know and I am too embarrassed to tell everybody… it does make me sad, as I feel that it is the most natural thing in the world, but society frowns upon you for nursing a child 🙁

  4. Thanks for a fabulous article. My 7 yr old still crawls into our bed in the morning for a nurse. I had no idea we’d still be nursing after 7 years but I wouldn’t change a thing.

  5. I’m sorry but there is something mest up in the mother head bf passed 4 yrs old. It’s not about your child anymore it’s about you and that’s wrong. No child should be breastfeeding on the breast so old it’s called get a pump and put it in a cup. I never once said it’s sexual so don’t even put that in your head. It’s just no longer about the child it’s about the mother and she should get help for that.

    • First of all it’s always about the children. Children come first no matter what. Their needs before ours. That is what a mother does. Working mothers stay at home mothers breast-feeding mothers and bottlefeeding we all do what we can and what is best for our children. So some others feel that their children need to nurse from the breast. And I say you’re doing a Great job! You’re the mother and you know what is best for your child new matter what anybody else says. You carried him or her for nine months, went through labor, stayed up through the sleepless night! you know your child needs more than anybody!!.

    • Actually, if you’ve ever nursed a 4yo who thinks they can read a book and eat a snack and have a conversation and hang upside down over your shoulder, all while nursing, you know it’s totally *not* about the mom. We only put up with the antics because we know the child has a real need to nurse. Most of the time it’s nice and cozy, but a lot of the time the developing personalities and boundary pushing of the rest of life creeps into the nursing relationship, and we have to work on teaching manners there, too. My kids were born with an autoimmune disorder (but you can’t tell by looking) and multiple food sensitivities, so no way was I going to take away the safest food and medicine they could have.

    • Obviously you had a hard time comprehending the article you just read. Pumping and putting it in a cup does not satisfy the need of the child. They aren’t only wanting the milk, they are wanting the closeness and all of the great things that you get when nursing. At this age, the desire for the milk is secondary to the emotional aspect of nursing. Your body is the safe space for that child and as a mother, I’m happy to give myself in that selfless way.

    • Funnily enough your argument is “its just wrong”. Why is it wrong? Because you think its weird? If we base all our decisions on what society thinks is weird we don’t get anywhere. Give me a real argument, something that has been scientifically studied and we can talk. So far, all the studies they have made have just shown how good nursing is for mother and child, and that doesn’t stop at 1 year, not even at 4.

    • Jay vanbee says:

      I nurse my 3.5yo and in no way is it about me. In fact it’s 100% about him and id love to wean him. I won’t for R wean him though because I know he is not ready (even if I am). Your comment is so ignorant I don’t even know why I am writing a reply. I pity you. The whole point of this article is to have an open mind. It’s blatently obvious you don’t nurse an older child (or have ff guilt so come here to attack breastfeeders?) so you really have no valid opinion. Please re read the article and heed some of the advice

    • First off it’s messed* up. We are the only country that calls a mother messed up for naturally weaning her child at whatever age the said child is ready. And idk about you but when I want to be held for security i dont go and grab a plastic doll so why would we deny our children the security they are asking for and just place our milk in a cup when the milk isnt even what they are asking for. Weaning for a child is ready is for the mother’s needs only and not her child, continuing to nurse a child who is all over the place while pinching and pulling your other nipple is no way only about the mother.

  6. This is a beautiful article! It’s nice to see more and more people starting to accept that nursing toddlers is okay and normal, but the idea of nursing kids who are 3 or 4 or older still weirds a lot of people out. (I’m honestly not entirely sure how I feel about nursing a 6 year old, but I’m keeping my mind open. After all, I’m currently nursing a 3 year old!) Thank you for your eloquent thoughts on this. Hopefully people will read this and let themselves be open to expanding their ideas of what normal is.

  7. Thank you!!! Wonderful:)

  8. Lisa Rivera says:

    My daughter will be 3 in March, never did I think I would still be breastfeeding her this long but it’s exactly right for US… Most of my friends/family weaned around 1 so I was figuring that was what would happen with us, but it didn’t. We still have a very strong nursing bond but try to keep to night time and mornings and it’s the time we both look forward to the most all day 🙂 ALSO my daughter has never been REALLY sick (she just barfed for the first time last week!) but never a fever, anything worse than a little cough or cold and I know a lot of that has to do with breastfeeding. I am happy to see articles like this normalizing long term breastfeeding. Thank you!! (And as far as pumping and putting in a cup because child to breast weirds people out is a SHAME! For us it’s more about the skin to skin, the security, the coziness, the intimacy of that super special bond, I’m pretty sure if I pumped it into a cup she’d rather just wean and drink animal milk).

    • I couldn’t agree more! My daughter actually likes drinking cow milk from a cup, but let me tell you, that would never calm her when she wakes up in the middle of the night! And my daughter also has never really gotten sick, and I totally blame it on breastmilk. Its the superfood!

  9. The sentence “This is my home” actually made me cry. I fully nursed my daughter until she was 2 (she refused all solids, thats how much she loved nursing) and I am currently nursing her to sleep for her nap and bedtime. She is now 2.5 and I am pregnant with my second. It seems that my girl will not give up nursing anytime soon, and even though i always thought it was weird, and never considered doing it myself it feels like the most natural and beautiful thing for us. We just went through a lot of transition and she had a really hard time adjusting, and out of the blue on a very tough day she came to me and requested that I sit down on the couch so she could nurse. She hasn’t nursed anywhere else but in the bed to sleep for 6 months but felt she really needed it. So after about 5 min of nursing she told me she was done, got up, turned around and said “I am happy now” and went on to play. Seeing this change in her was so striking to me, and I felt again that I AM doing the right thing for her and me, even though many people think its weird. I found your article extremely encouraging and I want to thank you for standing up for all of us moms who nurse past infant hood! I will definitely nurse my children until they decide thats it. Only good can come out of that! <3

    • Beautiful Lia Z. You are doing whats right for her. Well done.

    • my daughter, who is currently 15 months, also prefers nursing over solids. If its something she really enjoys (ofcourse pizza lol) she will eat it but otherwise it goes right on the floor and shes wanting to nurse instead.

  10. nursed all 5 of my kids between 16 and 25 months currently nursing my baby. my boobs are ready to fall off but he loves it so much I just can’t cut him off. there are a few times when I’d have a three or four year old get hurt and bring them to my chest to comfort them and realized “oh you dont nurse anymore” and they looked at me funny like “that’s the baby’s job” and it was sad.

  11. As I write this, Miss 4-in-a-month is lying in my bed beside me snoring her gorgeous little blonde head off. I am 41 and a single mum of a nearly 19yo University student, a nearly 14yo high school student, and Miss Nearly 4. My breastfeeding journey has been at times a difficult one. With #1 I had massive oversupply issues (taking 4 changes of tops for me for a 2hour errand) teamed with post natal depression, which led me to put her onto a bottle at 3.5mnths.
    With #2, I was bound and determined to at least breastfeed him for as long as my then stepsister in law breastfed her son (6mnths). 6 mnths came and i though “I’ve got this, I’ll keep going to 9 mnths”.
    9 mnths: “Still going strong I will keep feeding to 12mnths”
    12mnths: “He can feed until 2”
    2yrs: “we will wean when we are ready”.
    I weaned him at 3.5yo.
    This time, with Miss Nearly 4, I am more relaxed. She is still having booby at night or if she gets really hurt (she’s a tough nut). She is not intetested in or ready to stop. If she wishes to still breastfeed when she is 7 then that is our business, no one elses. If someone else doesn’t like it, I tell them to stop looking!!!

  12. Shiloh Peace says:

    Hello. Your article is sincere and well written. I am an older woman in my early 60s and perhaps it is the culture that I grew up in, but I am very uncomfortable with mother’s overindulging their babies and using the breast as a discipline or the go to solution for a tantrum. I can somewhat understand a boo boo. Please forgive me but I get really uncomfortable seeing a mother nurse an older child in public at times in the day which are not typical lunch, dinner, etc. If a mother uses the breastmilk as snacky on demand, what is different than a child who is going to the pantry to get a snack one too many times perhaps. But my real question is this. What is your milk supply for 4 to 7 years. Do you carry loaded breasts during this period? Isn’t that uncomfortable. Doesn’t your child have to be more consistently breastfeeding for you to generate milk. When does the milk dry up? Is it possible that there is little to no milk coming out in the toddler years and that this is truly a matter of dry feeding… as you somewhat suggest in your article that milk is a small reason for breastfeeding toddler. Please explain your supply of milk and how that works for older children. I am trying very hard to understand this. Thank you so much.

  13. I have been nursing a total of 103 months. My boobs are tired. I want to wean my toddler (28 months) but he is content to hang on my boob all day long. He plays with the other nipple while nursing. I ask him to stop, he usually does, but habits are hard to break. Its not always comfortable for me, So for now we have compromised on sleep times only. Or when he is sick…. or…. you get the picture. I am so glad he loves it. I love nursing him. I just wish he’d leave the other boob alone.
    Before this one I always thought 2 years was pushing it. (others nursed 14-24 months, 5 kids total) but now it doesn’t seem the least bit weird to have my nearly 2.5 year old crawl in bed and with his big sparkling eyes and mischievous smile ask, “boobie?”

  14. Thanks for sharing your story. I nurse my 4 year old still, throughout the night, too, and it’s not very often that I hear support for this. So, thanks! From one mama to another.

  15. When I first heard about a mother nursing her little one past 1 i was always weirded out but never said anything. Now, here I am, nursing my 3rd child who is 15 months old, while i type this actually, with no desire to stop any time soon. When I got pregnant with her I researched like a crazy person about breastfeeding and weaning until i just couldnt learn anymore. With my oldest I had NOBODY talk to me about breastfeeding and i was scared to breastfeed, with my second i was more informed that it was better for him but I didnt really have a support system and I just gave up after a couple weeks, so when I found out I was pregnant again I was determined to nurse and be successful. She has had latching issues since birth and we only just recently found out why. We have been fighting through a lip tie and didnt even know it. I have sworn since the beginning that the choice to wean was hers and I would not force her off if she was not ready. Here we are, 15 months later, and it seems like she is on the boob 24/7 but I wouldnt trade it for the world. I joke quite often that I would be completely ok nursing her on her wedding day lol. When she climbs into my lap and asks to nurse that is our time, our bond is so strong and I love it. And trust me, unless you have nursed a fidgety toddler who tries to nurse while being an acrobat then you really have no place to judge an “extended breastfeeder”

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